“What Is A White Personality?” and Other Questions From Young Transracial Adoptees

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the African Caribbean Heritage Camp in Denver, Colorado. Instead of preaching to a group of middle and high schoolers, I invited them to participate in a discussion between myself and three other panelists about the concept of race and adoption. Many of the campers candidly explained that they feel that they have a “white personality” or that they consider themselves to be an Oreo. I asked the tweens/teens to expand more upon what they meant by white personality or black personality, and we came up with a list. They explained that having a white personality meant that you liked to hike, camp, dress preppy and seek education whilst a black personality meant that you liked hip hop, dancing, sports and could wear bright colored clothing. The panelists (consisting of an Ethiopian man, an African American woman, a transracial adoptee and myself) worked to rebut their definitions explaining that some of us enjoy hiking and camping while not enjoying hip hop music. A contemplative conversation ensued to which I ended the session by asking each of the teens to write what they felt their emotional identity to be in light of our conversation. This question was meant to tap into who these bright young adults felt their true identity to be. I challenged them to not view themselves as white because their parents and the majority of their friends are white, and to not simply think of themselves as black because their skin tone and society says they are black, but instead to think about who they feel themselves to be emotionally?

Here’s a sampling of some of the written responses I received:

“I think I’m white, maybe, because I don’t get physical when I’m mad, where a lot of Blacks might shove someone or something when they are mad.”
-13 year old male,  African-American transracial adoptee


“My emotional identity is gray because that’s Black and White.”
– 11 year old male, African-American transracial adoptee


“My emotional identity is white because of the way that I talk and dress. I really enjoy it though. I feel that I have the ability to code switch if needed. I am comfortable with the preppy style.”
– 16 year old female, African-American, transracial adoptee


“My emotional identity is both, because I am academically charged and I ‘dress white’ and I am black because I am all about family and think it’s important to stay together.”
– 14 year old male, White adoptee


“My emotional identity is white because I grew up in a white family, so I think i got more influenced to a white personality, also at my school I hang out with white people. I’m the only black person in my grade. But also at my school it’s bi-lingual so there is a hispanic culture too, and since they have darker skin I don’t feel left out.”
– Female, middle school African-American transracial adoptee


These complex thoughts young transracial adoptees are grappling with is a beautiful reminder that allowing our kids to be in safe spaces so they can explore these complexities is so necessary. All of their statements and feelings are true as we cannot argue with one’s own feelings. However many of the statements are laden with stereotypes, we must recognize when we do have opportunities to educate and challenge these inherited assumptions. This will allow these young adoptees to grow in to an identity that best exemplifies themselves.

Can I call you Maya?

I have a deep desire to connect with my long lost birth sister. This desire does not have anything to do with the measure of contentedness with my {adoptive} family. These things are separate.

I’d almost forgotten how bleak, frustrating and out of control those years I spent searching for my birth family felt. I’d been largely silent, choosing not to share my struggles and woes with the world – only now (through the documentary) have the main plot points and tempered emotions been shown. Closure depicts some of the thoughts I was willing to vocalize on camera, but certainly did not catch the moments of despair and the times I toyed with the idea of giving up forever. The unseen moments usually showed up in the form of anger and rage behind closed doors – Bryan often being caught up in trying to help settle me down didn’t have the opportunity to grab the videocamera (thank goodness!).

The feelings of bleakness, injustice and unfairness are creeping back as years of searching, writing unanswered letters, sending photos to somewhere, probably landing in someone’s file cabinet collecting dust, has led me nowhere. I’ve gained no ground, and know the same two facts that I’ve known all along – she was adopted to a family in Pennsylvania, and is about 20 months older than me. The fantasizing, catastrophizing, wondering and questioning continues, combined with the understanding that people have a right to their own privacy which seems to paralyze me at times. I don’t know the ethics behind attempting to find someone who may or may not want to be found. I did it once (showing up unannounced at the front door of my birth moms house), and although it certainly wasn’t the kindest of introductions, time healed some of the wounds…other wounds may never heal. The unplanned and intrusive meeting between my birthmother and I was not all for naught. Hard? Yes, but necessary. Ethical? That’s debatable.

In the meantime, while I’m seemingly stuck not gaining any ground in my search for her, I think I’ll give her a name. I’ll call her Maya – in honor of Maya Angelou: someone whom I hold in high esteem but will likely never meet. Yes, Maya it is. “Maya,” I don’t know you, but I hold you in high regards as I know you’ve been through a lot. But, sadly, I doubt we’ll ever meet.